National Science Foundation Grant Will Strengthen Hiring in Research Administration

Funding allows Tufts to test the feasibility of an apprenticeship program for community college students 

Research administrators and research compliance professionals are a critical part of Tufts’ research enterprise and are a key piece of the national research workforce, ensuring that investigators are able to successfully apply for and manage extramural funding of their research and scholarship. 

Nationwide, a shortage of qualified candidates has made hiring in both fields difficult. Due in part to a lack of awareness about research support positions, hiring either new or experienced research administrators and compliance professionals is challenging, especially in the Boston area. In addition, degree requirements often present a barrier to entry, and to increase applicant pools and aid in increasing diversity, Tufts had eliminated the requirement that applicants for research administration positions hold a bachelor’s degree as a first step to solving this problem. 

Now, an apprenticeship project supported by a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently obtained by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, could help establish a new source of candidates for these roles—and potentially open up the flow of community college graduates nationally into the research administration and compliance profession.

Tufts will direct the apprenticeship project, known as the Tufts Research Administration and Compliance Cohort (TRACC) program. Under TRACC, the university will collaborate with Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC), selecting seven students who will start training for these positions in Tufts’ research administration and compliance units. 

The grant will allow Tufts to test over 18 months starting September 1, the feasibility of a new, scalable apprenticeship model aimed at both deepening the pool of research administrators and research compliance professionals while also strengthening institutions’ ability to hire qualified individuals. In this model, community college students would step into research administration and compliance roles as apprentices, learning on the job how to perform the Tufts’ research compliance, pre-award, and post-award tasks for which research administrators are responsible.

“With strong research administration onboarding and mentoring programs, robust instructor-led and online training programs, and our excellent research administration and compliance staff as resources, Tufts is well positioned to develop, test, and evaluate this model,” said Zoya Davis-Hamilton, associate vice provost for research administration at Tufts.

The apprentices will begin with a paid pre-training program involving two virtual BHCC courses: one that covers the use and application of relevant computer systems and another that uses learner-centered approaches and holistic supports to guide participants in their pursuit of personal, professional, and career goal achievements to ensure they have necessary career-readiness skills. 

BHCC will also provide students in the program with a suite of wraparound services available to other Bunker Hill students, including the Counseling, Prevention and Wellness Center, which provides free mental health services; Single Stop, which connects students with assistance for basic needs such as housing, food, and transportation; and the college’s food pantry. These services have proven to be key factors in student success and retention at BHCC. 

The apprentices will then kick off a six-month intensive training program at Tufts, during which they will learn important concepts related to research administration or research compliance, and the key elements of the day-to-day work of each profession. In addition, the cohort will meet biweekly to share their experiences, successes, and challenges. 

The grant will allow Tufts to explore what is required to set up an apprenticeship program for community college students, how heavy a lift such an initiative is for an organization, what kind of training on the ground is needed to upskill apprentices, and whether a planned six-month timeline for training will give apprentices enough grounding for on-the-job success.

The ultimate aim is to demonstrate that, with appropriate supports before and during an apprenticeship, community college students can help fill critical entry-level research administration and compliance roles across the country. 

This program exists independently of formally registered apprenticeships on which Bunker Hill Community College has partnered with the U.S. Department of Labor in recent years.

Beyond deepening the bench of people available to help apply for and administer grants, the program also would help increase inclusivity in the field, according to Bernard Arulanandam, vice provost for research at Tufts. 

“Community colleges often enroll students from non-traditional backgrounds and with diverse experiences, and similarly, principal investigators come to their research from the widest variety of backgrounds imaginable,” said Arulanandam. "TRACC will give us the ability to ensure that the group of administrators supporting research at Tufts is as inclusive as the group of principal investigators they will be supporting.” 

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